Analysis: AARON MWEWA
HOW often do you hear people say that young people in Zambia are not interested in politics and the news? You might have also heard other people say: Young people do not have time to read more than 140 words or watch a 30-minute documentary on policies because they just do not care. Such attitudes are wrong and dismissive to a very important game changer in a country’s democratic space.
Of late, it is true that young people have not been voting in great numbers world over. However, it is not true that young people do not care about their country’s political dispensation. The recent countrywide inter-school parliamentary debates are proof that when young people are given the opportunity to engage on parliamentary processes, they do so in a fearless and intelligent manner. From the debates, it was clear that the youths are ready to stand tall and challenge the wrong misconception that they are not interested in contributing to the growth of the country’s democratic space.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), presently, Zambia has the largest population of young people in its history. The median age in Zambia is only 16.8 years of age, with a total life expectancy of 52.7 years. This ranks Zambia’s population as the sixth youngest for median age in the world. Since the decisions made in Parliament affect the present and future of the youth, which is the country’s largest demographic, it is not only fitting that they pay attention to what is happening in that House, but also find ways of participating in its processes.
For the country’s parliamentary democracy to be inclusive and responsive to the needs of the young people, it must be accessible to them. Though landlocked, Zambia is still a very big country. Thus, people are separated by hundreds of kilometres, which makes it logistically difficult to make it possible for different youths to get physical access to Parliament Buildings in Lusaka.
To go around this impediment, the Parliamentary Reforms Programme Department of the National Assembly of Zambia introduced debate contests for 78 schools from different constituencies in all the 10 provinces this year, in its efforts to nurture the interest of Zambia’s youthful population in Parliament. The debates were co-funded by the Government of the Republic of Zambia and Irish Aid as part of the strategy to make the National Assembly more visible.
The debates were held under the theme ‘Integrating youth participation in taking Parliament closer to the people’. The main objective of the debates was to create a forum for discussing parliamentary work with a view to generating demand for information and also dispelling some of the commonly held myths and misconceptions about Parliament.
During the debates, performance was evaluated based on the learner’s ability to provide accurate information about Parliament. The format of the debate sessions was such that after the preliminary and knock-out stages, the schools that emerged victorious progressed to compete for the top spot at provincial level.
The finals of the debate contests were special in that they were attended by Members of Parliament and other senior government officials such as permanent secretaries, district commissioners, district education board secretaries and district education standards officers. Other than civic leaders, members of civil society organisations and the media also attended the debates.
All the provinces had eight schools participating in the debates with the exception of Eastern Province, which had 14 schools. In total, 22 schools competed in the final debates with 11 emerging victorious. An analysis of the debate contests conducted in all the provinces of Zambia indicate that the Inter-school Parliamentary Debates are an ideal avenue of disseminating information about Parliament to the public.
Representatives from the Ministry of General Education were pleased with this initiative by the National Assembly as it was in line with the two-tiered revised curriculum that the ministry has been implementing since 2014. The district commissioners’ offices were of the view that the activity was important as the learners’ voice, which is non-political and innocent, was added to the dialogue around the functions of Parliament vis-à-vis development.
The activity generated a lot of interest from various stakeholders in society as it proved to be an effective means of disseminating information about Parliament. Through the debates, an opportunity was provided for learners to discuss various aspects of the work of Parliament with feedback being provided to correct some misconceptions that society holds.
From the academic standpoint, the debates helped to enhance the pupils’ proficiency in the English language. The debates also made it possible for the pupils to undertake extensive research on governance issues, which form the core of both Civics and Civic Education at junior and senior secondary school levels, respectively.
In terms of lifelong skills, the debates helped to enhance the learners’ soft skills, which can be applied to all other aspects of life such as self-confidence, time management, communication and the ability to learn and accept divergent views, which is a key construct of democracy.
On the basis of the success which has been scored this year, the National Assembly of Zambia should consider turning this activity into an annual event, which should culminate into the national inter-school parliamentary debate contest.
History is awash with many examples of how young people have driven development and social change around the world. Without the participation of young people in social change, the world would have been looking a totally different place today. Thus, efforts to integrate youth participation in taking Parliament closer to the people should be celebrated and encouraged by all who desire for Zambia’s Parliament to put the ordinary citizens at the centre because, after all is said and done, democracy is all about the people.
The more Zambian youths are engaged in the parliamentary system, the more interested they will become in it. The more youths become engaged in our parliamentary system, the stronger our society will become.
The author is a communication for development specialist.
Analysis: AARON MWEWA